Steve Morse the American iconic rock fusion guitar pioneer was born July 28, 1954 in Hamilton, Ohio. Ironically his father was a minister, but his mother a classically trained pianist, in which Steve obviously received his musical genius. Like many budding musicians in the 70’s, Steve attended the University of Miami and with Andy West formed the instrumental fusion group Dixie Dregs. Morse is one of the most articulate and impressive guitarists of his generation. He was voted “Best Overall Guitarist” by Guitar Player magazine in their annual reader’s poll five consecutive years (which ended his eligibility by retiring him into their “Gallery of Greats”, a distinction shared only by Steve Howe of Yes.) I had the privilege of working with Steve on a project, as well as sitting down with him and picking his brain about his recording techniques for guitar on his new collaboration “Angelfire” with up & coming singer Sarah Spencer.
BTQ: What’s your set up, guitar and amps when recording this project?
Steve: I started with my normal Musicman electric, and then used a Buscarino acoustic/electric nylon string guitar, an Ovation steel string, a Steinberger 12 string, a Musicman baritone guitar (tuned down to B), and a Line 6 Variax for a few parts, too. Amps… hmmm… not many amps at all. Everything I can think of at the moment was mic’d or direct. For my current projects, I’m enjoying the new signature amp that ENGL made for me, but wait, there were a couple of electric solos on a stock ENGL classic tube amp that I was trying out at the time.
BTQ: Do you have your own studio or did you use an outside studio for this project?
Steve: I used my studio. It’s a very modest endeavor, built for space rather than sonic perfection. There are some concessions to recording ideas such as no parallel walls, slightly higher ceiling, and walls separated from the floor by foam…….but it’s pretty simple compared to the professionally designed ones I’ve seen in some musician’s homes. I’ve become attached to my old board, which is still wired to my old Studer 24 track, so everything went through the board on it’s way to being recorded by the computer. The old Urei compressors still work, and are used on all vocals and clean guitars.
BTQ: I was a very big fan of the original Steve Morse Band albums. Besides music style difference, how does your guitar approach with Sarah Spencer differ from your solo productions?
Steve: My approach is always the same… to try to create some sonic depth. With distorted guitar doing melody, such as on my SM band albums, that usually requires having lots of different sounds, if only for phrase reinforcement, or bringing out an underlying part. Partly why my guitar has 5 different sounds that I always switch between! With this album (Angelfire), I wanted to have no distortion at all when she was singing, since her voice is so perfect sounding, so that meant combining different sounds that were clean. For instance, while I’m playing a busy arpeggiated part on the nylon string, one time I might add 12 string to double only the notes that are on the 5th and 6th strings, to accentuate and slow down the apparent density of what sticks out to your ear. So instead of hearing a lot of equal volume notes, there is a constant harmonic backdrop of arpeggios with a more sparse, ringing 12 strings, just loud enough to notice the difference. The material itself pushes you in a certain direction. For example, in the tune “Omnis Morse Aequat”, the clean guitars are being ‘wah’ed by rolling the tone control with my little finger instead of using a wah pedal. This gives the effect of unearthly brass and string accompaniment when it’s mixed right, which fits the stately nature of the tune. Another example, in “Get Away”, the riff was crying out to be played on the baritone guitar, since it’s in a key that seems too high for standard tuning without distortion, and the baritone with a clean sound gave it a slightly unusual framework.
BTQ: How did you record the guitar, mics, room amp or close mic, etc?
Steve: I close mic’d everything, using a large diaphragm Shure KSM condenser and a Neuman 47 for the voice. I tried lots of mics for the acoustics, and probably used the Shure 81 the most. I also used a tube direct going into the Urei 1176 compressor for direct stuff.
BTQ: What format did you record the songs on, analog or digital?
Steve: I used Cubase SX1, 2, and 3… the project lasted a long time and there were upgrades during the project. Cubase is very powerful and fits my needs fine. I find the German approach easy to understand and remember… after making some mistakes in the beginning, years ago. All software like this requires quite a ramp-up period of time to learn what to do. Basically, you have to be able to edit almost everything on the fly, or have a superhuman memory and ‘fix it later’. With Sarah, I simply had to decide which good sounding take sounded better, and keep it. There were literally 3 notes that I fixed of hers, so we ran no pitch correction, which always helps the naturalness, since it IS natural. I did de-ess some songs, and still don’t know if that was a great idea or not, since, of course, it sounds different on each system it’s played on.
My computer is a plain vanilla, electronics outlet HP desktop. Years ago, I used Apple stuff, but when my Mac fried, there was literally no place in town to get another and get back to work, so I made the big jump to PC stuff, which led me right to Cubase. Mark of the Unicorn A to D converters, and a few random keyboards I have around, and that was it. Van Romaine and his engineers in New Jersey, and Germany did the drums and percussion. He was touring and at home while he tried to get these tracks done for me… Thanks, Van! He uses Beyer mic’s, I think. Dave LaRue recorded his final bass parts at his home studio, and was pretty much direct with his 4 and 5 string Musicman bass.
BTQ: Being a guitarist, what foot pedals did you use on this project? Were there any in particular that really gave you that classic Steve Morse sound? Perhaps you can share a technique with the readers.
Steve: I don’t think I used a single foot pedal, and I usually don’t in the studio. One technique I did use was to double a part with the effect, say a chorus delay, on the opposite side of the dry part. Then, when you double the part, pan the doubled part exactly opposite so that on take one you have dry on the left, effect on the right… take two you have dry on the right, effect on the left. It makes it sound sonically complex without totally phasing out. The doubles need to be pretty close to make that work, since it’s best if they are the same volume.
BTQ: Can you explain how Steen Skrydstrup modified your amp rig with the ENGLS and how that has effected your sound?
Steve: The biggest way it’s affected my sound is that my rig never breaks during shows! It’s a great example of industrial quality trumping consumer quality. With my usual fat snake of long guitar cords, I could always rewire and troubleshoot any part of the rig. However, in this context, with limited time to set up, and lots of traffic on the cords, this heavy duty multi-pin approach is easier to set up… and amazingly, very reliable. In case you haven’t guessed, I haven’t had 100% luck with multi-pin systems in the past, but his work seems to be impeccable. I feel very fortunate to have a rig of such high quality from the guitar all the way to the speakers.
I love to see our old school guitar heroes incorporate the new digital recording technology with the classic analog recording techniques we all know and love. This is something that is near and dear to my heart. Since I come from the old days of analog myself, I’ve always felt strongly that digital recording needs the warmth of an analog mixer and vintage compressors to enhance the signal flow. This is exactly how Steve and I worked together on the instrumental track “Towers”, dedicated to the New York Firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11 at the World Trade Center. I recorded all of the tracks on the Ampex MM1200 2 inch analog tape machine and then dumped them down to Digital Performer via the MOTU 24 I/O. So when Steve sent me his solo tracks, I just flew them in the session and lined them up and mixed. I’m a strong believer that both digital and analog worlds compliment each other very well. I even encourage budding recording engineers who solely live in the box to go out and buy an analog ¼” 2 track tape machine to use for master mix downs to warm up the signal. Once properly aligned, you’d be very surprised how that makes a sonic difference!
About the author
Brian Tarquin is a Multi Emmy Award winning composer/guitarist and owner of Jungle Room Studios. Some of his accomplishments include, writing the theme music for MTV’s Road Rules, as well as producing music for many other TV shows such as CSI, ABC’s Making The Band, Extra, Alias and the Keanu Reeves film, The Watcher. In 2006, Tarquin opened his own boutique record label called BHP MUSIC, specializing in instrumental guitar music. Brian is also a featured music writer and has been published in magazines such as EQ, Guitar Player, Premier Guitar & Recording.